Political scientist: Prague has become a hub for Russian operations in broader Central Europe

President Putin’s re-election for a fourth term in office has evoked mixed reactions in the Czech Republic, reflecting the different perceptions of Russia today. President Zeman, who is seen as a strong supporter of President Putin, presents Russia as a promising business partner, but many politicians and ordinary people in this country still see Russia as a threat. So is Russia under Putin a partner or a threat – that’s a question I put to Petr Kratochvíl, head of the Prague-based Institute of International Relations.

Vladimir Putin, photo: CTKVladimir Putin, photo: CTK “Well, of course Russia under Putin is both. On the one hand it is definitely a business partner, but on the other hand, if you look at Russia’s foreign policy during President Putin’s third term then clearly it was a policy of outward aggression. Domestic growth was almost nil and that is the reason why the legitimacy that Putin tries to get comes mainly from his foreign policy adventures – in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine five years later and in Syria as well. And I have to say that this strategy is something that works in terms of domestic consumption, as we can see. The approval rating of President Putin is very high, even though there has been some election rigging.”

There have been protests against President Zeman’s pro-Russian policy in the Czech Republic and some politicians openly say they fear coming under Russia’s influence again. Is this a possible threat?

“Well, Prague has become a hub for Russian operations in broader Central Europe - that is definitely the case. If you just look at the size of the Russian Embassy here in Prague – which is huge – it clearly indicates that Russia is very active here. On the other hand, I think that we should not demonize Russia. It is a state that is building up militarily, but at the same time its economic model and society model is not particularly successful, it is a country that has stagnated for the past five years and I don’t think that Russia has the capability or even the potential means to substantially influence the foreign policies of organizations such as the European Union.”

Petr Kratochvíl, photo: archive of Institute of International RelationsPetr Kratochvíl, photo: archive of Institute of International Relations How does Russia see the Czech Republic – its one-time satellite – today?

“Well, on the one hand, ordinary Russians have a very positive view of the Czech Republic and when you say Prague people have strong positive connotations, on the other hand, for Russian policy makers the Czech Republic is a hub or center for broader activities, so when we think about Russian foreign policy towards the Czech Republic we should always think in the broader context, because it is part of the broader policy, broader strategy regarding the EU.”